Moments of catastrophe that destroy communities often provide opportunities to rebuild them to be more resilient to preexisting harms. The challenge lies in spotting and seizing those opportunities. With the re-takeover of Mosul and other cities formerly controlled by the Islamic State, the rapidly growing demand for shelter in Iraq continues unabated. Yet the dearth of supportive services in many affected communities continues. One obstacle is an Iraqi policy that effectively forbids local organizations from providing shelter. The potential solution lies in international allies partnering with local organizations in a new way: by supporting their policy initiatives. In Iraq, local activists know that changing the anti-shelter policy in a time of massive humanitarian crisis would broaden the safety net for women fleeing all forms of violence while also helping to dismantle long-term structural violence. This is the paradox of crisis. One local organization, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), is stepping up to meet the needs of survivors of gender-based violence by providing much-needed shelter, albeit clandestinely. Together with international partners, OWFI is challenging Iraq’s anti-shelter policy and creating the conditions for structural change.
With over 3 million displaced and over 10 million in need of humanitarian assistance in Iraq, international relief agencies are struggling to meet a critical need for shelter. Inadequate budgets, geographic and security barriers that isolate displaced communities, and meager in-country resources are preventing relief agencies from meeting overwhelming need for shelter. With the battle for Mosul and other cities formerly controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria waging on, the demand for shelter continues to grow. It is time to consider new, long-term strategies.
Best practices in humanitarian aid call for international organizations to partner with community-based organizations. When the risk to aid workers is too high or when battle lines cut off displaced communities, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often best positioned to meet humanitarian needs in areas inaccessible to internationals. They may have the credentials and informal connections to cross through checkpoints. Longstanding presence in affected areas can also come with good working relationships with local officials, first responders, and the community at large—all vital components to sustaining a direct service operation. Yet the dearth of supportive services in many affected communities is striking. One obstacle is an Iraqi policy that effectively forbids local NGOs from providing shelter. The potential solution lies in international allies partnering with local organizations in a new way: by supporting their policy initiatives.
Technically, nothing in Iraqi law explicitly bars local organizations from providing shelter. Passage of the 2011 law prohibiting domestic violence in the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq led to collaboration between women’s groups and the regional government, from which NGO-run shelters began to appear. In central Iraq, both the Combating Trafficking in Persons Law of 2012 and the Iraq National Action Plan for the Implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security support the creation of women’s shelters. Unfortunately, government officials have interpreted these policies to mean that only the government can run safe housing. Meanwhile, the government has yet to open adequate shelters, and the very few that do exist remain empty and unstaffed.
Patriarchal biases appear to drive the Iraqi government’s approach to shelter. According to Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), “Shelters are thought of as encouraging women to disobey their husbands and daughters to disobey their parents. This leads to the presumption that a shelter is a place where a group of immoral women reside without a male guardian.” The deputy chairman of the Committee for Women and Family in the parliament, Haifa El-Hilfi, echoed this sentiment, stating, “There is a fear that if these shelters are opened many women will use them to leave their families.” This, she described, would be a “real risk that would threaten many Iraqi families.”
Despite the policy prohibition, some Iraqi women’s organizations are stepping up to meet the need, often covertly. Operating a shelter in a war-torn country is a deeply challenging venture; operating one clandestinely even more so. With limited resources, these shelters can offer only meager accommodations in few scattered places, making it difficult for victims to find them. Without official protection, local organizations must routinely relocate their shelters to protect survivors from being found by family members who track women down for escaping attempted honor killings, domestic violence, or forced marriage. When police raids occur, officers insist that residents let their families know where they are, putting these survivors at grave risk. Without policy protections, safe house administrators are also vulnerable to imprisonment by police and death threats by militias. International donors who fund clandestine shelters run the risk of severing ties with officials. At worse, they could be kicked out of the country or denied reentry.
Despite many government officials’ public support for the anti-shelter policy, the ongoing conflict has increasingly compelled change. Faced with an influx of displaced people, and a dearth of relief aid, some local officials in affected towns have entered into temporary agreements with Iraqi NGOs to provide much-needed shelter and other direct service provisions. There is potential for these agreements to remain in place beyond the conflict’s end and work toward normalizing the concept of sheltering in Iraq.
In the conflict-affected area of Samarra, where it is too risky for international relief workers to enter, OWFI has been working to meet the needs of families escaping Islamic State-contested areas. Protected by a written agreement with the local city council, OWFI currently provides shelter and humanitarian assistance to 18 displaced families, about 60 people. Families come from areas such as Alsharqat, Hawija, and Beiji, which remain controlled by the Islamic State or are contested areas. Knowing their capacity is modest, staff members prioritize helping families who are supported by women and do not have traditional “breadwinners.” They also help families with men who are either disabled or are otherwise unable to provide for their loved ones.
Local NGOs are critical humanitarian actors in places like Samarra that lack adequate international aid. Last winter, for example, OWFI learned of families living in a desert area east of Samarra, near the village Albo Mubarak. Concerned about the severe cold and harsh conditions as well as the potential attacks by sectarian militias, they informed local authorities as well as international relief agencies. When they realized that those actors were unable to respond, OWFI organized vehicles and safely transferred the families to the city.
While there are two other local organizations in Samarra that help provide assistance to displaced families, both are affiliated with the Iraqi Islamic Party, which evolved out of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Consequently, these organizations push a political agenda within their humanitarian assistance work, evangelizing sectarian values among those to whom they provide aid.
With modest funding from international donors, OWFI’s Samarra branch has continued to provide some assistance to displaced families. In addition to meeting basic needs, OWFI also works with a local doctor to provide medical assistance. However, medicine in Samarra is costly and not always accessible and counseling is scarce. Similarly, many displaced persons are in need of psychosocial support beyond the common peer-to-peer counseling that is the only available option in the small city.
Organizations like OWFI could strengthen their direct services beyond meeting immediate shelter needs, with the technical assistance and funding that comes with international partnerships. The introduction of additional supportive services in Samarra, such as vocational training and reintegration services, could transform short-term immediate services into long-term transitional solutions and help families gain independence. It could also improve their overall well-being, reduce their vulnerability to statelessness and exploitation, and strengthen their capacity to exercise their rights.
INGOs working on the ground in Iraq could provide referrals for those escaping gender-based violence that they are not equipped to help. MADRE assisted OWFI in developing protocols for accepting referrals for residents from sympathetic agencies and organizations such as the International Organization for Migration, but these referring agencies are few and far between.
Humanitarian efforts by local organizations have not gone unnoticed by the government of Iraq. Despite officials’ continued endorsement of the anti-shelter policy, the government also recognizes its reliance on local NGOs to help provide services to survivors of gender-based violence in light of the current conflict. In the fall of 2015, when the the UN Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Committee asked the government about shelter availability, government representatives responded that OWFI is helping to meet the needs of survivors in central and southern Iraq. Officials explained that this local NGO is taking measures to address the sharp rise in violence against women by providing comprehensive services for survivors, including shelter. Thus, in international statements, officials pass off to local NGOs their obligation to ensure shelter for survivors, while on the ground, harassing and hampering local organizations providing that service.
Last fall, Yanar Mohammed testified at the UN about dangers posed by the anti-shelter policy. Yanar, along with international allies from MADRE and CUNY Law School, argued that the ban puts women at risk of torture and death. Her argument was simple: if women are discovered being housed in a privately run shelter, they are seriously endangered by government authorities, since police may send survivors back to the families who put them in jeopardy in the first place. This means, it is not only the lack of available shelter, but the policy prohibiting privately operated shelters itself that puts women and marginalized people at risk of torture or death.
In some instances, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT Committee) has found that the absence of shelters can exacerbate the risk of torture and may violate a state’s obligation to protect and prevent against foreseeable torture. But, the committee has always ruled that it is within a government’s discretion to determine how to provide shelters. This includes whether shelters are government run or privately run.
In response to the Iraqi advocates’ testimony, the CAT Committee made an unprecedented decision, calling on the Iraqi government to legally permit privately run shelters. The UN Human Rights Committee followed suit, expressing concern about the Iraqi government’s prohibition of privately run shelters for gender-based violence victims, and called on the Iraqi government to facilitate access to NGO-run shelters. Local activists have utilized both committees’ recommendations in their advocacy work and call on the Iraqi government to implement a policy change that would make way for much-needed Iraqi NGO-run shelters.
Changing Iraq’s shelter policy would not only help save lives, it could clear the way for increased international funding directly to local organizations, which would spur community-based jobs and help alleviate local governorates’ economic burdens as they scramble to address masses of people fleeing into their towns. These are also critical opportunities to deepen the discourse on how the international community addresses the conflict, which should include supporting practical strategies of those working on the ground.
Knowing that changing the shelter policy could broaden the safety net for women fleeing both private and conflict-related violence, local activists are seizing the opportunity to respond to immediate needs with an intent and strategy to effect longer-term policy changes. While they are working on obtaining more written agreements from other affected towns, they have also turned their sights on Baghdad.
A coalition of over 40 local organizations led by OWFI is advocating for the central government to adopt a national framework allowing for private shelters. A directive from the government clarifying that Iraqi charitable organizations may provide much-needed services to survivors of conflict-related violence, including shelter, would help bolster Iraq’s capacity to meet the critical needs of those escaping conflict and gender-based violence. Several women’s organizations have said they would step up to help provide shelter and other supportive services if the policy changes.
Due to its advocacy efforts, OWFI has recently been invited by the Committee for Women, Family, and Child of the Iraqi government to propose amendments to a draft law on domestic violence entitled the Family Protection Law. As this bill mandates the provision of shelter, OWFI has recommended that a phrase be added to the draft law to clarify that women’s organizations are authorized to operate shelters for survivors of violence. This bill offers an important breakthrough for the civil society campaign to legalize NGO-run shelters in Iraq. If passed by parliament, the law will automatically nullify the shelter ban, enabling Iraqi organizations like OWFI to provide shelter and much-needed relief to women and families fleeing violence.
This is the paradox of crisis. Moments of catastrophe that destroy communities often provide opportunities to rebuild them more resilient to preexisting harms. The challenge lies in spotting and seizing those opportunities. In Iraq, local activists know that changing the shelter policy, in this time of massive humanitarian crisis, could broaden the safety net for women fleeing all forms of violence. The immediate needs generated by the current crisis create the opportunity to push for longer-term policy changes. International allies have the opportunity to support local groups pushing to expand shelter services, thus creating an effective, immediate-term solution that also helps to dismantle long-term structural violence.
This model of identifying and supporting local advocacy initiatives could be replicated in other conflict or disaster-affected countries. Tackling the obstacles to realizing basic rights that existed before conflict as a way of addressing immediate needs just makes sense. Why not support local advocates working on the frontlines of service provision and human rights? After all, someday when the crisis is over, and most of the internationals are gone, their work will continue.
Lisa Davis is a clinical professor at the City University of New York’s School of Law and the human rights advocacy director for MADRE.
The author would like to thank Diana Duarte, J. M. Kirby, and Afarin Dadkhah for their research and editorial assistance.
 “Iraq” (resource, United Nations Office for for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, November 2016).
 Also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the so-called Islamic State (IS).
 In 2011, the Kurdistan regional government adopted a law prohibiting domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Since the law’s passage, the regional government has permitted local NGOs in the region to run women’s shelters. There are currently two shelters run by local NGOs, four government-run shelters, and one quasi-governmental shelter run by a political party. “Seeking Accountability and Demanding Change: A Report on Women’s Human Rights Violations in Iraq” (report, IWHR, MADRE, OWFI, et al., October 2015).
 Interview with Iraqi women’s rights activists in Istanbul, Turkey, 22 January 2015. See also “Trafficking in Persons Report 2014” (report, U.S. Department of State, 2014).
 Interview with Yanar Mohammed in New York, 10 July 2015.
 Amal Sakr, “Iraqi government rejects plans for women’s shelters,” Al-Monitor, 9 December 2013.
 Interview with Iraq women’s rights activists in Baghdad, Iraq, 13 January 2014.
 “Concluding Observations on the Fourth Periodic Report of Iraq” (report, Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 12 October 2015).
 “Seeking Accountability and Demanding Change: A Report on Women’s Human Rights Violations in Iraq.” “Living with Fear: Torture and Discrimination Against LGBT Persons in Iraq” (report, IWHR, MADRE, IGLHRC, 2015).
 “Concluding Observations on the Initial Report of Iraq,” Advanced Unedited Version (report, Committee Against Torture, 14 August 2015).
 “Concluding Observations on the Fifth Periodic Reports of Iraq” (report, Human Rights Committee, UN Document CCPR/C/IRQ/CO/5, 3 December 2015).
 “Open Letter to the U.N. Security Council on the Government of Iraq’s NGO Shelter Policy” (letter, MADRE, 16 October 2016).